Saturday, September 15, 2012

God Bless America

Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Starring: Frank Murray, Tara Lynne Barr, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Melinda Page Hamilton, Maddie Hasson
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The scariest thing about God Bless America is how relatable its main character is, at least in the early going. He could very easily be your uncle, a co-worker or even your neighbor. And in what he complains about, it's hard to deny he brings up some valid points. If a satirist's job is to depict realistic characters then writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait certainly outdid himself here. Then about half-way through we start to lose him and the movie evolves into something you didn't think it would when it began. It would be tough for material this risky to even work as a drama much less a dark comedy, but Goldthwait goes as far as he can and then some. Whatever problems it has comes from overreaching and tackling a timely topic no other filmmaker would likely touch with a ten foot pole. And for good reason. Mass murder isn't funny. One could argue it's even less funny when you present its perpetrators not as villains, but emotionally disturbed anti-heroes. This skirts the line, but at least has guts and something to say. It's difficult expecting more given this difficult of a premise.

Middle-aged, divorced sad sack Frank Murdoch (Frank Murray) has just lost his job, begs his ex-wife for visitation with a spoiled daughter (Mackenzie Brooke Smith) who doesn't want to see him and has gotten a fatal a medical prognosis. Those would be reasons enough to push him into contemplating suicide, but it's reality television and pop culture's influence over an increasingly uncivilized society that brings him to his breaking point. While channel surfing he discovers the MTV-style Tuff Gurlz, with women swearing and throwing tampons at each other, and the talent competition American Superstarz, where judges humiliate a horrible singer who goes on to become a national sensation. A fed up Frank decides to take justice into his own hands and murder an annoying reality starlet Chloe (Maddie Hasson), grabbing the attention of her disturbed high school classmate Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr). She convinces Frank to turn the gun away from himself so they can team up and continue to snuff out people just like Chloe. The movie then kind of transforms into a road trip killing spree along the lines of Bonnie and Clyde or Natural Born Killers. Only it's supposed to be funny.

There's much discussion between Frank and Roxy regarding who exactly "qualifies" to be killed. Whether it's an obnoxious conservative talk show host, reality competition judges, or people who talk during movies, the disrespectful become their prime targets. In what must be the most fortunate timing ever for the studio, the latter results in a theater shooting scene that plays ten times more disturbingly now than when released into theaters earlier this year. It's a shock it wasn't excised from the DVD altogether. As if the film needed to court any more controversy, the father/daughter relationship between Frank and Roxy has creepy pedophilia undertones made that much creepier by the characters openly talking about it in more than few cringe-worthy discussions. It follows suit with the rest of the material in how Goldthwait decides it's best to just acknowledge whatever giant elephant might be in the room rather than dance around it. No one can accuse him of playing it safe or not going all the way, but it sure does make for an uncomfortable viewing experience. More than likely, that was his plan.

Murray and Barr are largely unknowns which helps since a movie that featuring a bunch of celebrities being assassinated would ring false if the killers were played by big name stars (not as if one would ever consider signing on to this). Murray nails down a pleasant, everyman pushed to his limits, making the character's later actions seem that much more horrifyingly twisted. He also works excellently with Barr, whose sarcastic wisecracks and deadpan humor turn Roxy into kind of the sociopathic kid sister of Juno. Ironically, screenwriter Diablo Cody tops Roxy's imaginary kill list, which must be about five years out of date if her lingering dissatisfaction over that issue is any sign. The American Idol spoofing already seems a bit dated also so it'll be interesting to see how portions of the film play later on since everything's very "of the moment." Maybe a little too much so. But the underlying issues and complaints aren't, which is why most of the scenes work. 

Who hasn't flipped through the channels and joked about wanting to blow away the D-listers on these reality shows? Of course we wouldn't, but it's fun saying that. This film is really the basis of that statement. A kind of revenge fantasy, in which an average Joe is fed up by our society and can't seem to find happiness anywhere. In many ways, Frank's taking all this mindless entertainment as seriously as those he wants to kill, quickly evolving into the problem he wants to fix. This is a satire and a smart one at that. Dark comedy is probably the toughest genre crack so while it doesn't hold together as tightly as Goldthwait's shockingly good World's Greatest Dad from a couple of years ago, it's fun witnessing his story on this tightrope without falling off. In equal parts dramatic and comedic, God Bless America is strangely moral in its immorality, asking the audience to laugh at and pity the influence pop culture has over our lives.                       

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